Division of liability in a personal injury claim refers to situations where more than one person is responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. In personal injury cases, "liability" means that a defendant is legally responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries or accident. Liability becomes complicated when there are multiple people responsible for the injury. There are three types of liability:

  • Joint Liability;
  • Several Liability; and
  • Joint and Several Liability.

What is “Joint Liability”?

Joint liability means that more than one defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s injury. With joint liability, each defendant is fully liable for the total amount of damages. For example, if three drivers are held jointly liable for the injuries of another driver, they are each liable for the damages. 

If one of the three drivers passes away, the other two will have to continue making the damages payments until the injured party’s losses are remedied. If one person pays for the full amount, the other defendant can’t be sued for the amount (or else the plaintiff will have been compensated twice). Joint liability applies mostly to debt contexts, and is not so common in personal injury or tort claims. 

What is “Several Liability”?

Several liability is the opposite of joint liability. Under several liability laws, each defendant is only liable for the percentage of injury that they caused. For example, if the three drivers were each only liable for one third of the plaintiff’s injuries, they will each have to pay only 1/3 of the amount of the damages award. Several liability is sometimes called “Proportionate Liability” 

The difficulty with several liability lies in determining the exact percentage of liability for each defendant. For example, it may be quite difficult to conclude whether a defendant was 20% liable, 30% liable, etc. Several liability is very similar to the way liability is divided in a comparative negligence defense.

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What is “Joint and Several Liability”?

Joint and several liability works by first holding each defendant liable as a group for the plaintiff’s injury. Then, it is left up to each defendant to determine how much of the damages award that they will be responsible for.

So, in our example involving three different drivers, each driver will be included as a defendant and will incur liability for the plaintiff’s injuries. If the defendants decide that only one driver is fully responsible, that driver would have to pay the full amount of the damages. If that driver disagrees, they can file a separate lawsuit against the other two drivers to obtain contributions from them.

What is the Difference Between "Joint Liability" and "Joint and Several Liability"?

In personal injury law, the phrase “joint and several liability” describes the responsibility each person has when two or more people caused the same injury. Under joint and several liability, both defendant A and defendant B are responsible for paying 100 percent of the plaintiff’s damages.

Joint liability means that more than one defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s injury. With joint liability, each defendant is fully liable for the total amount of damages.

Which Liability Rules Apply in Each State?

Every U.S. state has laws covering the division of liability in a personal injury claim. Some states follow “pure” rules, while others apply a “modified” version of a rule (meaning that they may place limitations on the division of liability).

States that follow “pure” several liability rules are:  AK, AZ, AR, CT, FL, GA, IN, KS, KY, MI, TN, UT, VT, and WY.  The rest of the states apply their own modified version of the Joint and Several liability laws. Again, “pure” joint liability is rarely applied in a personal injury claim.

How is Liability Determined?

Liability may be determined using a variety of approaches. This will depend on the type of injury.

Every U.S. state has different laws when it comes to multiple defendants in a single lawsuit. Some apply joint liability, others only apply joint and several liability. These are complex determinations that are best left to the analysis of a legal professional.

Proving fault in a personal injury case can also be complicated by other matters. These can include issues like:

  • Previous injuries;
  • Insurance options; and/or
  • Contributory negligence.

What is an Example of How Division of Liability Works?

Suppose that Anne is struck by cars driven by Betty, Christine, and Diane. The jury determines that Anne is entitled to $10,000 in damages. It is also determined that Betty is 20% liable, Christine is 20% liable, and Diane is 60% liable.

  • Under Several Liability rules, Betty would owe Anne 20% of the damages, which is $2,000.  Christine would also owe 20%, or $2,000. Diane, however, would owe 60%, or $6,000. Thus, Anne would be compensated for the full $10,000, with each defendant paying in proportion to their individual (“several”) liability.
  • Under Joint and Several Liability rules, Anne may recover the full amount from any of the defendants, regardless of their percentage of liability. Anne may sue only Christine, who would then have to pay the full $10,000, even if she was only 20% liable. Christine can then pursue a lawsuit against Betty and Diane, who may have to pay her $2,000 and $6,000, respectively. Alternatively, Christine can name Betty and Diane as co-defendants who will be joined in the original lawsuit.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with Division of Liability in a Personal Injury Claim?

Many personal injury claims involve multiple defendants, each of whom may have different degrees of liability. If you need assistance with division of liability, speak to a local personal injury attorney immediately to learn more about preserving your rights and remedies. Your personal injury attorney will be able to help you recover the full amount entitled to you according to the laws in your area.